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We are deeply concerned at the potential effects of the Public Bodies Bill on the future of the Forestry Commission’s estate. The Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords on 9 November.
The Bill empowers the Secretary of State by order to amend how the Forestry Commission disposes of land, manages and uses it. The Secretary of State may exercise this function ‘for any purpose and unconditionally’.
We have sent a briefing to Peers, highlighting our fears.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘It is hard to conceive why ministers want such draconian powers unless they intend to dispose of much or all of the Forestry Commission’s estate.
‘At present, the public has a right to roam on 90 per cent of the 200,000 hectares of freehold Forestry Commission land in England (an area the size of West Sussex). The access is provided by a dedication under section 16 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This land provides immense pleasure to people, for recreation and relaxation. The recreational opportunities are as varied as the forests themselves.
‘The minister must guarantee that those public rights of access will continue for ever, regardless of land ownership. He must also guarantee that the quality of those rights will be maintained, with good access points, clearly waymarked trails, picnic sites, interpretation and education opportunities. The Forestry Commission has a fine record for excellent-quality access.
‘Furthermore, if the land is used for another purpose, the access to it may be lost, because it could become ‘excepted land’ to which the Countryside and Rights of Way Act does not apply.
‘We fear that the effect of this Bill will be the wholesale loss of public access and enjoyment, not only in the famous woods and forests like the New Forest, Kielder, Bedgebury and Westonbirt arboreta, Cannock Chase and the Forest of Dean, but in numerous smaller woods close to people’s home—their local breathing spaces.
‘There has been no consultation about this measure, which could have a damaging effect on people’s lives. We hope that the government will rethink these devastating proposals.’